|source:The Daily Telegraph|
IT'S the next giant leap for mankind - landing an astronaut on an asteroid up to 10,000,000km from Earth.
And Australia is being considered for an intricate role in the ambitious NASA mission that could one day save the planet, The Daily Telegraph reported.
Among the objectives is to find ways to prevent a collision between Earth and a massive asteroid, such as the one blamed for wiping out the dinosaurs.
It would be the first time humans have explored space beyond the Moon and a testing ground for future missions to Mars and beyond.
NASA's Planetary Small Bodies, Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science lead scientist Dr Paul Abell is in Australia to investigate how we can help the Near Earth Object exploration project.
The project was revealed by US President Barack Obama late last year after he scuttled a $100 billion plan to return to the Moon. Mr Obama said the US hoped to reach an asteroid with an orbit close to Earth by 2025.
Dr Abell said the RAAF's Woomera Test Range in South Australia was one of several possible landing sites for the mission, which could take between 45 and 180 days.
"Any landing site would be determined by the length of the mission and other factors, but Woomera could be among the choices," he said.
Dr Abell said an asteroid had yet to be chosen but the Siding Springs Observatory at Coonabarabran could help identify a target.
There are thousands of "near-Earth objects" less than 10,000,000km from Earth's orbit and Dr Abell said about 20 per cent of them are considered PHOs - potentially hazardous objects.
The mission will also search for "organic molecules" that could be signs of the origins of life, and look for precious metals and water.
But it presents NASA with technical difficulties.
"The astronauts could not do a 'Moon walk'. The Moon has about one-sixth of the Earth's gravity but that's enough to allow them to stand on its surface and walk," Dr Abell said. "An asteroid has far less gravity than the Moon so that even if you stood on its surface and slightly flexed your knees, that would be enough to generate take-off velocity."